The notifications came like a tsunami to my cell phone:
“Active shooter situation in San Bernardino”
“Unknown number wounded and killed.”
My first reaction: “Not again. I’m weary of this, I’m discouraged. How long will it be until this happens in my neighborhood . . . again?”
Perhaps you experienced those feelings too. I had to stop and wonder why I think so many other countries are dangerous to visit when my own is impacted weekly by active shooters in schools, churches, universities, malls and community centers. Sadly, it has become a new normal.
This weekend, in the context of the church, I will be debriefing with our gathered youth the events of the last week. In former days this would have happened rarely and only following an event I subjectively measured as “big.” Or, it might have happened if one of our youth brought it up as a prayer request or if the national news was covering it for consecutive days. It might have been perceived as an “option” but not likely a necessity.
I propose we are in a season where debriefing is now a necessity. With the frequency of terrorist acts and mass shootings now a regular occurrence – more than five have happened in the last two weeks alone – and how social media creates incessant communication, it is important for us as youth leaders to recognize that the trauma of these many episodes no longer lies below the surface for our youth and children. The smiles on the faces of our youth may be hiding anxiety they are feeling. And it is important for us, as leaders, to be honest with our youth in age appropriate ways when we are the ones feeling anxious.
Join me this Sunday or the next time you meet with your youth to reflect and talk as a “family.”
Here is a simple game plan you could adapt in your debrief time to fit your own context:
Make this plan your own. What other ideas would you add? What's worked well for your groups in the past?
Doug Ranck is associate pastor of youth and worship at Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, CA. With three decades of youth ministry experience, he serves as ICTG Program Director for Youth Ministry, as well as a leading consultant, trainer and speaker with Ministry Architects, the Southern California Conference, and, nationally, with the Free Methodist Church. He has written numerous articles for youth ministry magazines and websites, and published the Creative Bible Lessons Series: Job (Zondervan, 2008). Doug is happily married to Nancy, proud father of Kelly, Landon and Elise, and never gets tired of looking at the Pacific ocean every day.
I did not want to write this.
I did not want to have to write one more response, reflection, or blog post about the process of a campus healing after a shooting, not one more word. But here I am three weeks after the Umpqua Community College shooting in my beloved state of Oregon, still trying to comprehend the tragedy, loss, and deep grief that yet another campus shooting has left behind. Yuck.
In blog posts past I have offered many thoughtful and thought out tips and suggestions for those supporting college students in the wake of a campus shooting. Some of these suggestions have included holding a time for prayer and reflection, creating space for grief and processing, and acknowledging the need for lament in it’s many forms. These are good suggestions and I certainly would like to highlight them again as great tips in helping campus communities work through their loss… however right now I want to suggest something different – action.
After Sandy Hook it was a no-brainer – something needed to be done. As has happened many times throughout our recent history, celebrities came together to make a statement – in a simple black and white video – to say three words:
Enough is enough.
The message was simple – enough is enough. We need to change what has been broken, do something – anything. No more names, no more lists of names, no more schools. No more.
With that cue, I suggest here additional ways we can support our campus communities in light of local or national massive campus tragedy and loss.
Call the Question
When a massive tragedy like a campus shooting happens many questions come to the surface. Some of these questions are rhetorical, others honestly seek understanding and answers. Be intentional and create space for the questions – both big and little, both personal and communal, both isolated and mobile. Many of us process our experience in words. Creating space for key questions not only offers students the chance to reflect, but starts to get at important concerns.
This process of calling the questions can be done as an event, small group activity, restorative justice peace circle, or over a meal. Have a moderator or host begin and then let the questions come.
Where was God in this moment?
What is the role of grace and forgiveness in this moment?
Where is God’s goodness/ fairness/justice in this moment?
If God is good then why….?
Why did this happen?
Then, host a discussion around them. Where do the questions come from? What are their roots? How might we go about answering them in community?
Remind the group gathered that the questions don’t need to be answered today. They do need to be asked and to be heard. Asking questions has theological implications and challenges students to see what is symbolic in the experience, deepening their engagement with pressing issues.
Get angry about this. It’s ok to get angry, and it’s ok for students to work through their anger as well. When anger surfaces after massive trauma, we as leaders can model our freedom to let it come and reflect on the why and how it is. Walking students and communities through this emotion is crucial. As mentioned above, key questions are tangible means of engagement and can assist students into deeper reflection in relation to the anger they feel in the aftermath of mass violence.
Invite students to consider:
What exactly are you angry about?
Where do you think it is coming from?
What will you do with this emotion?
Identifying answers to these questions can help students begin to feel more focused and grounded, and less chaotic following the disparate experience of initial shock.
After Sandy Hook I was angry. We had just had our first child and during those early weeks of his life I rocked him in his nursery as my husband watched the news in the room down the hall. I could hear the names being read of the children that died in that campus shooting -children. I was angry because of the injustice and the pain. I was angry because I was so happy about being a new mother with a beautiful child and I could not bear to think of the pain of losing my own child if that had happened to our family. I grieved deeply for the mothers who lost their babies.
It was infuriating.
Reflecting on this emotion taught me so much about myself, what I cared about, and how much certain issues meant to me. By reflecting on my anger, I was thrown into the depths of prayer and lament to God. There my understanding of God and God’s love, compassion, and grace grew. It was an incredible learning and stretching experience for me. I know it is an experience our students can learn from as well.
Finally, the best thing about anger is that it can get us going and motivate us to action. Perhaps your action may be entering into a deeper experience of prayer or outpouring to God. Perhaps your action may involve deeper engagement with community instead of becoming isolated. There is solidarity in this form of lament. Or, perhaps, your further action moves you toward acts of justice, awareness, healthy living, and correcting.
When guided in positive ways, anger has great potential to lead us to big action which can bring about important change.
Do Something – Anything
Finally, nothing will change if we don’t do something. Caring about issues like campus violence – whether the issues are racial or gender specific micro-aggressions, campus shootings, dating violence, or sexual assault – is only half the battle. We must accompany our care and concern with action. We must let our good intentions manifest into change. Or else, truly nothing will happen.
On a pragmatic scale this might look like starting a letter writing campaign with students. It might mean attending or organizing a community conversation on these issues. It may mean participating in a protest, sit in, or march. Or, like the Enough is Enough video – it may involve using the arts to communicate the importance of an issue or topic.
Gather for memorials and prayer services. Gather for call to action events and get your local communities involved so those around you and your community understand that you are not willing to take it anymore.
As we say in the national sexual assault bystander program Green Dot –
We don’t need to do everything, but we can do something.
My hope after Sandy Hook was that this anger, this nationwide anger, would lead to change – after all, what was it going to take if not this horrific tragedy?
But here we are three weeks later from another campus shooting. And, sadly, more incidents have occurred since then.
We are not alone, we are together. We are community and we can make a difference. Change can happen.
Enough is enough.
Director of Social Concerns Seminars in the Center for Social Concerns (University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana), Melissa is a social entrepreneur, a feminist liberation theologian, and a trained community organizer. She works with university students in academic and experiential environments to respond actively to most pressing social concerns of our time. She lives with her family in South Bend, Indiana.
The following is the first post in a series by ICTG Advisor, Melissa Marley Bonnichsen, addressing topics related to trauma and the pastoral care of college and university students.
The returning back to college and university campuses at the start of the year is an exciting time for many students. The energy, like static electricity, moves through the air in those days and nights leading up the start of the semester; this feeling is truly magical. There is so much anticipation, joy, and excitement going around that it almost feels electric.
While some wait till the last minute to return to campus, many choose to return Saturday morning, some even Friday night, eager to move back into the dorms in hopes to squeeze a couple more drops out of summer, enjoying this time with their peers whom they have missed and are now trying to reconnect with. It feels like this is what college is all about and excitement for the school year builds, opening student’s hearts and minds to what is ahead.
It is one of the most exciting and anticipatory times on campus, but for some it serves as a reminder of how different they are, now, than from when they left that space months ago. Instead of excitement being their dominant emotion they feel isolated from the joy their peers seem to bask in as grief and loss run their course. They have come back to campus but they are not the same, something in their lives has changed.
For these students whose summer has been interrupted by loss, grief or crisis, these days of joy and excitement can be difficult and isolating. Regardless of the experience – parents divorcing, a death of a loved one or pet, loss of a home, a community torn apart, a major life event that has altered their story, or a messy and painful breakup, these students are in the midst of their dark night and are walking through the shadow of death – and perhaps they are going unnoticed.
As our academic communities re-adjourn this fall let us remember to support those who are hurting from trauma experienced over the summer. There are many things you and your communities can do, including simply being there for these students, but here are some suggestions that might truly communicate to students in need that you care and can support them through this difficult time.
Create Space for Grief and Lament
This space can be physical or structural. This might mean reserving a hall/campus chapel for those experiencing grief and loss or for those who might want to lift up prayers or lament. It may mean creating space in a morning worship session for moments of remembrance so people can call to mind their grief and allow them to lift thoughts, names, or prayer to God. It may mean offering a space to light candles to honor others, regardless, sacred space is important in working through our grief. I have found that even some of the folks who desire to stay away from religion still are drawn to beautiful, holy things – if you create a space like this people will come.
I remember when our favorite cat passed away. Her illness came on quick and for whatever reason she was not responding to any of the help we obtained for her. When I asked if she was suffering and the vet looked at me with sympathetic loving eyes and told us yes, we knew we had to say goodbye. While enduring such a difficult moment the animal hospital was incredibly helpful and supportive to my family and I. It was both beautiful and amazing how this organization handled death with such incredible dignity.
In the facility there was a beautiful sacred room that had been created for goodbyes and they gave everyone a pet loss journal which for 30 days would walk someone who had experienced the loss of a pet through their grief, while leaving many pages for one’s own lament. Additionally they offered memory days where you could go once a month to the hospital and sit with art therapists who would help you design a memory box or picture frame to remember your little loved one by. Their approach to others grief and lament was holistic as our approach should also be.
Let them know that they are not alone
Especially at a time when students are sharing eagerly their summer adventures with each other, students who have stories of loss or trauma can feel like the odd one out. Because of this it is important that we continue to let our struggling students know that they are not alone – both in grieving on campus and within their own suffering – as Jesus walks with them through every moment, sigh, and tear.
If support groups in your community or on your campus exist, please make sure this resource is widely available. Campus vigils dedicated to loss of loved ones are often held throughout the semester- especially if a student in the college or university community has passed away. Advertising open moments for gathering at a sacred space will also allow your students to see that they are not alone and that others are also on their own journeys towards healing.
Finally, working with the student affairs community on campus or meeting with hall directors briefly at the beginning of the year and sharing about resources from your community or your work will be helpful in promoting opportunities for students to find others who are experiencing loss and grief.
Let them know that their story will not end here
When the moment is right, after much discerning on your part, encourage them to remember that this is not the end of their story, although it may feel like it. Working through loss, grief, and trauma is a long process with many stages, but movement through these stages is very helpful and students will eventually get through all of them.
It is in this place we can evoke the phoenix metaphor; rising from the fire and ash we are transformed, different people who have come back but are not the same. This too adds to our stories and it is important that our students understand this. From my own tradition, and in my work among Catholic and Protestant Christians at the University of Notre Dame, I find it is also important that students know that they are never alone in their suffering, that Jesus was with them every step of the way. In this moment the famous prayer by Thomas Merton is made manifest…
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
With open arms and warm hearts let us walk prayerfully with those who have experienced deep loss or trauma over the summer and help them transition well into the school year and beyond.
Expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.